Monday, January 9, 2012

What are those Scots up to?

I apologize to those I have kept waiting on tenterhooks for the next installment of the Radical Land Tenure series; illness has severely curtailed my energy. But I have dragged myself out of bed to tell you about Scotland, because it is really just so cool. Now, actual Scots are welcome to comment and agree or disagree; I'm going by the literature, here.

Until very recently, the Scottish system of land ownership was literally feudal, with the concentration of land ownership amongst the rich that one would expect. In the Highland Clearances of the 1700s and 1800s, rural tenant farmers were forcibly displaced from their small plots to make room for sheep and later sport hunting. These farmers ended up concentrated in the outlying and less desirable parts of estates in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, where there are 30,000 of them today on 7% of Scotland's total land area.

Because of this history, as of 1996, and perhaps yet today, Scotland had the “most concentrated pattern of large scale private ownership of any country in the world” (Wightman, 2004: 3). (Two-thirds of this land is owned by 1252 landowners - 0.025% of the population - in large estates. One quarter of the privately owned rural land is in estates of 30,700 acres and larger, owned by just 66 landowners.). Many landowners were (and are) renowned for their neglect, paternalism, and iron-fisted control over the land and any changes or developments to be made to it. The feudal system of land tenure was only abolished in an Act of Parliament in 2000. Scotland is in many ways in a post-colonial situation.

In 1993, the crofters of Assynt took a historic step, coming together as the Assynt Crofters Trust to purchase the 21,000 acre estate on which they were tenants from a bankrupt Swedish land speculation company. This stimulated land reform in Scotland and became emblematic of the “social sector” in land ownership. Further community land purchases followed, and in 2003 the Scottish Parliament introduced the Land Reform Act. This Act granted rural communities in Scotland the right of ‘first refusal’ on the sale of estates and granted crofting communities the right to buy their croftlands on a collective basis, even over the objections of land owners. At a time when Canadian farmers are encouraged to lease land from investment companies, Scottish communities are becoming owners. As of 2009, some two hundred groups have been helped to achieve buy-outs by the Scottish Government’s Community Land Unit. More than two percent of the nation’s land—a third of a million acres—is now under such ownership.

Individual crofts (small farms) are typically established on about 5 hectares of “in-bye” for better quality forage, arable and vegetable production. Each township traditionally manages poorer quality hill ground as common grazing for cattle and sheep. Because of the poor quality of this land, crofters traditionally rely on income from other activities in addition to agriculture.

Community buyouts take different forms: they form or use a democratic body to represent the community and then usually make a company that owns and manages the property on behalf of the community. Other ones may share control over the land with partners such as conservation organizations (community partnerships as in Eigg) or sometimes it's only crofters that purchase (crofting trusts). Communities get all the security and rights of conventional land ownership under Scots law (unless under easements for example, or charitable status). Crofters still lease their inbye land, but they lease it from the community organization, that also owns the common land. Other than whole estates, community property includes community facilities, heritage assets, economic resources such as wind turbines. Community ownership allows diversifying croft activities that require collective action: developing horticulture, sheep's wool for house insulation, stock clubs, planting trees, sensitive tourism, or a small hydro scheme as in Assynt.

There's a variety of ways to obtain the purchase price of land. Funding for community buyouts is available through National Lottery money in Scottish Land Fund, as well as other grants such as those the Highlands and Islands Development Corporation provides. Some money comes from the purchasing community, other from donations and loans. Community ownership has many potential benefits. It can provide greater security allowing people to plan for the future, greater freedom to use assets, facilitate access to greater funding, encourage social networking, allow profit to be retained in community, promote community cohesion and pride, provide greater transparency and accountability in decision making.

Because this system involves community development, it speaks to the issue not just of land reform – everyone being able to access an equitable share - but agrarian reform. It recognizes that, as Borras and Franco say, “while land redistribution is the 'heart' of agrarian reform, post-land (re)distribution support service packages and favourable rural development policies are the 'soul” (2010: 114).

There seems to be an attitude towards land and rural development on part of the Scottish government that is very different from that of neoliberal governments in Canada. The government justifies intervention in the land market/private property rights on the grounds of social justice, capture of economic opportunity, population retention and self-determination (Brown 2007). This helps convey the moral authority that communities need for feasible ownership. So does the ethic of community rights trumping individual rights that is rooted in Highland culture. It seems to be recognized in Scotland that the land tenure system doesn't just affect usage, and doesn't even just affect economic factors such as the labour skills of the population or access to employment and thus migration, but the social structure; and the distribution of power and influence.

There is debate within the crofting movement regarding private ownership, though. The 2007 Committee of Inquiry on Crofting found that there was division over the fundamental question of whether, with the cessation of feudal tenure, a croft is an individual/family asset, to be bought and sold freely, or a wider social and cultural asset, for generations now and in the future. Thus far, the weight is on the latter side with those who see crofting not just as an economic asset/means but as a social, cultural, environmental, and agricultural practice that is collectively beneficial, and threatened by an open market in crofts. That putting crofts on the open market would eventually mean the demise of crofting is acknowledged by the proponents of that market.

The collective vs the individual. We've seen this many times in agriculture here, and will no doubt see it again. Which way do you think we are trending? 


Borras, S. (Jr.) & Franco, J. (2010). Food sovereignty and redistributive land policies: Exploring linkages, identifying challenges. In H. Wittman, A. Al Desmarais, & N. Wiebe (Eds.), Food sovereignty: International perspectives on theory and practice. Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.

Brown, Katrina. 2007. Understanding the materialities and moralities of property: reworking collective claims to land. Journal compilation: Royal Geographical Society (with The Institute of British Geographers.

Bryden, John and Charles Geisler. 2007. Community-based land reform: Lessons from Scotland. Land Use Policy (24), 24–34

Chenevix-Trench, Hamish and Philip, Lorna J.(2001) 'Community and conservation land ownership in

highland Scotland: A common focus in a changing context', Scottish Geographical Journal, 117: 2, 139 — 156.

Mackenzie, Fiona. 2010. A common claim: community land ownership in the Outer

Hebrides, Scotland. International Journal of the Commons, 4: 1, 319–344.

Shucksmith, M. Committee of Inquiry on Crofting: Final Report. 2008. Available at
Wightman, A. 2004. Common Land in Scotland: A Brief Overview. Available at

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